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Providence: The GREATEST Dogma

Hilton Head Island, SC – September 30, 2018
The Chapel Without Walls
II Samuel 12:1-11; I Corinthians 1:18-25
A Sermon by John M. Miller

Text – For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. – I Corinthians 1:18 (RSV)


The word providence, or more specifically the doctrine of providence, is not referred to much these days. It was a very important concept to St. Augustine, the greatest of the Early Church fathers, and to St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval Church scholars. It became a much-discussed and written-about topic for Martin Luther and John Calvin. Since the Reformation, however, providence as a major Christian concept has slipped from the consciousness of most Christian scholars, clergy, or lay people.


The word dogma is a Greek term which means “that which must be believed.” Roman Catholics still have certain dogmas which everyone is supposed to affirm, and evangelical Protestants have the equivalent of dogmas, but they don’t use that word to describe them.  Mainline Protestants tend not even to conceptualize anything as “dogmas.”


Today I am going to suggest that the notion of providence is the greatest Christian dogma. It is the essential concept by which the Christian religion is understood. Just so you know from the outset, hardly anyone would say what I am going to say in exactly the same way I am going to say it. In other words, this sermon is my personal perception about how God, by His providence, relates to us in the world.  I am convinced that providence is the most important of all doctrines, and ought even to be classified as a dogma, something which must be accepted by Christians. However, I recognized that most people do not understand providence in such an elevated manner. If, after hearing this sermon, you still do not believe providence is all that important a concept, I certainly won’t hold it against you. But I hope to do the best I can to explain why I am so committed to this ancient idea which has lost much of its centrality in the Christian Church.


There are many different definitions of providence, but they all boil down to this: providence is the notion that God has been involved with every aspect of creation since the world began, and that He uses everything that happens, whether good or bad, to work His will in the world. Providence does not mean that God causes everything that happens, but rather that He uses everything that happens for His own purposes and designs. He does that by inspiring us, His sons and daughters, to respond to the leading of His spirit as we must deal with those occurrences.


Historically, two kinds of providence have been identified: general and special. General providence implies that God is able to utilize any and every occurrence for His intention to turn the world into what Christians call “the kingdom of God.” Thus if Hurricane Florence floods thousands of homes in North and South Carolina, most people thus affected will perceive the storm as a powerful and devastating act of nature, and not as some kind of divine punishment. For those who believe it is a sign of God’s punishment, or some kind of divine intervention through nature, either they take it to mean they must straighten up their lives, or they hold Florence against God, thinking that they did nothing to deserve such a catastrophe.


Surely God does not intend hurricanes or other natural disasters to wreak havoc on anyone. The weather or geology or asteroid collisions with Earth are free to do whatever they do, but God does not determine such actions. In God’s general providence, hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions may cause some people positively to re-assess their relationship to God. If so, God no doubt is happy that happened. Thus good came out of a seemingly horrible disaster.


Special providence is different. It implies that God steps in directly to effect His will. The parting of the waters of the Red Sea would be an illustration of God’s special providence, as would be the sun standing still at the battle of Ajalon in the book of Joshua or the miracles of Jesus.


This is fairly technical stuff, and it might not be the sort of sermonic material you wanted on the last Sunday morning in September, but I encourage you to stay focused anyway. Even if you don’t agree with what is said by the time we are finished, at least it may help you further to clarify what you think about how God acts in the world.


There are two other theological words which have particular relevance for this sermon. They are God’s transcendence and His immanence. The transcendence of God suggests that God looks at His creation from afar, that He observes everything that happens, but that He does not cause everything, or perhaps even anything. The immanence of God means that God is right here, right now, in every moment of everything that happens. We can call on Him at any moment, and He will answer us. Sometimes or often He intervenes to bring about special events in our lives, such as the Red Sea miracle, or the miracles of Jesus, or the life of Jesus in totality, or the apparent miracles which occur when people with terminal illnesses are miraculously healed. This is how the “immanent providentials” perceive the activity of God.  


Everyone whose life is devoted to God perceives Him ordinarily to be on a continuum somewhere between Very Transcendent and Very Immanent. Thus we suppose that God is either far removed from everything that happens in the world or that He is intimately involved in everything that happens in our lives. One way or the other, the notion of providence postulates that God uses all events to advance His plans for His creation.


So then, in hearing all this, a question may naturally arise. If God rarely or never acts directly in our lives, why should we ever pray? What is the point of prayer if by His providence God is not going to intervene in the world? But He does intervene, proclaim the “transcendent providentials”; He intervenes through us. WE are the agents of God’s activities within His creation. If justice is to prevail, we are the ones to make that happen. If fairness in all things is to be followed, it is up to us to establish that equity. If the starving are to be fed, we provide the food to feed them. If those who are unconvinced of the existence or the love of God are to trust that God is involved in their lives, we are the ones whom God utilizes to do the convincing. God’s providence works through what we provide on His behalf. God doesn’t do those things, at least not directly; we do them.


It is natural to ask God to heal the sick or to feed the hungry, but most of the time, if not all the time, He does it through us. Therefore we should pray for God’s spirit to sustain the sick or hungry in their affliction, and to use us to allay their challenges. We should ask God to establish justice in the world, but we should understand that we are His agents in doing that. We provide what God wants to be done in the world more than He Himself provides it. We are the agents, the enactors, of His providence. At least that’s the way it appears to me.


One of the most notorious episodes in the Bible is when David had sex with Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the wife of one of the junior officers in David’s army. One day he looked down from the parapet of his lofty palace and he saw her taking a bath. He was instantly infatuated with her, and he ordered one of his servants to go and bring her to him.


Somehow the prophet Nathan found out about this. (As in so many other places, the Bible does not bother to tell us how this happened.)  So Nathan went to David, and he told him a story. There were two men in a certain city, said Nathan. One was rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds. The poor man had only one ewe lamb, and he raised it as a pet. A friend came to visit the rich man, and in order to feed his friend, he took the lamb of the poor man and fed it to the visitor, refusing to slaughter one of his hundreds of sheep.


When David heard the story, he was incensed. “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”  Looking David straight in the eye, and without so much as a fearful blink, Nathan said to David, “You are the man.” Then, with no trepidation for condemning the king for his sordid actions, Nathan became the very voice of God to David. God had blessed David in countless ways, said Nathan, but David had forgotten God by his sinful conduct. Therefore David would experience strife and warfare for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, God would not forsake David, even though David had forsaken God.


The story of David and Bathsheba has lived forever in the minds of Jews and Christians as an example of bad behavior by a good man. But God used that evil choice to make David a much better man. God certainly did not cause David’s sin, but He used it to improve David when the king realized the depth of his lawlessness. God did what He did because David did what he did. Our actions have consequences, and God uses those consequences for good. God always is using us to make the world better: always. That is the purpose of providence.


Our responsive reading was from Psalm 104. It says of God in His dealings with people, “When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things. When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” The psalmist is referring to providence, but he does so from the standpoint of one who believes strongly in the immanence and special providence of God.


Marie Curie died of radiation sickness as a result of her scientific experiments with radium. But those experiments won her the Noble Prize, and they resulted in enormous advances in the field of medical science. Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted by polio as a young man, and it eventually rendered him unable to walk. But his inner spirit moved him to overcome his disability. He also had the serendipitously good fortune to marry a woman who became his arms and legs during his twelve-year presidency.


Did God cause Madame Curie’s death, or did He cause FDR’s polio? Absolutely not, but by His providence He enabled great progress to ensue from their own choices in how to deal with their serious physical setbacks. God desired the great progress on behalf of all of humanity which resulted from their disabilities, but they consciously chose to enact that progress.     


Rationally, realistically, the worst conceivable way to establish a great new world religion would be to have its indispensable leader put to death on a cross. No good could possibly come out of such an horrendous calamity. But the Christian religion came into being precisely because Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans. By every rational measure, the crucifixion was an unmitigated disaster. Providentially, it became THE Event which gave birth to Christianity. Following it, in an ineffable, inexplicable, indescribable way, Jesus’ earliest followers believed he was raised from the dead. There could be no resurrection without a crucifixion, so there could be no Easter without a Good Friday. God’s providence cannot be thwarted. There is no greater illustration of providence than Jesus of Nazareth being nailed to a cross.


The almost-indispensable other leader of the new Christian religion was the apostle Paul. He, who had persecuted Christians in his early life, became the Super-Christian in his later life. To the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, he wrote, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). The primary symbol of Christianity is not an empty tomb; it is a cross. The cross may have been given too much emphasis as the central Christian symbol, but it is our symbol. That is how providence often works, extracting God’s will from the folly of humanity.


Take your bulletin home with you today. Cut out the quote on the cover. Tape it to the mirror in your bathroom. Whenever you read it, think about how you are God’s providential agent. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great nineteenth century American Unitarian preacher and writer, and he wisely and beautifully proclaimed that providence does not always seem wise or beautiful, but that, in the end, it always comes through. “Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrible benefactor in a white shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity.”


We are the primary means of God’s activity in the world. We are the miracle workers, the truth proclaimers, the forces in the fields of need and conflict, who turn the will of God into the kingdom of God.


We should always count on God’s general providence, but we should never count on His special providence. If He wants to offer us special providence, He will provide it. Human beings are the primary agents of God’s providence. God has endowed us with this responsibility.


Again, one final question. What makes all of this a dogma? Why must it be believed? This seems to be the way that God works in the world - - - through people. And if that’s the way it is, that’s why it ought to be believed.





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